Tasting the hard, thick, brown square of dark chocolate Grampie finally agreed to share with me after succumbing to ten tortuous minutes of my innocent childlike begging, my mouth explodes. My eyeballs seem pushed back into my now-aching head and I wonder where the loud buzzing sound is coming from. Not sure who is doing all the screaming. Ohhhhh noooooo, it’s coming from me!
I begin intermittently spitting into the dusty gravel driveway and yelling and spitting and yelling and spitting and yelling something indistinguishable. My legs begin to go wobbly and my arms are flailing as if I were going to take flight. I WANT to fly away! Faaaaarrrrr away from my hero, my Grampie who is now doubled over, laughing hysterically in his deep, gravelly voice until tears roll off his rosy cheeks and his shiny bald head is as red as a boiled lobster.
The spitting and yelling continues until he can once again stand upright and pulls me to his chest with a big bear hug. Grammie, in her full-length, crisply ironed cotton apron emerges from deep within the house, most probably the kitchen, with a Tom and Jerry jelly glass of cold, red ZA-REX. She had been carefully watching out the tall kitchen window as we walked thru the yard on our weekly trek to inspect the “blueberry fields” and had witnessed the entire interaction. She anticipated this very outcome as she watched my begging her playful husband and saw that he had finally handed me a chunk of his “brownie”.
That moment was the first time I became aware of Grampie’s lifetime love of chewing tobacco! He surely did covet chewing chunks of that nasty smelling stuff! Wherever he went, a fresh double-brownie sized chunk, newly wrapped in cellophane, and tucked into the breast pocket of his plaid flannel shirt. It truly seemed his special friend at times. He reached into that secret hiding place for refreshment, out of boredom, for consolation and for comfort. It seemed that chewing centered and calmed him all at the same time, just as a baby doll or soft blanket does when we are small.
It is not much of a stretch to imagine how I thought this enticing brown substance to be a luscious brownie. I was salivating for a chocolaty treat as I marched proudly alongside the strong, wise Grampie I adored.
None of the three of us ever forgot that awakening, my first exposure to the cognizance of chocolate versus tobacco. The recounting of that day continued for years, being told and retold from family holiday dinner tables to random visitors after I was long tucked away in bed.
He did so love to chaw. He chewed while walking outside first thing in the fresh air of morning. He chawed a chunk after eating a hearty lunch. He chawed vigorously while driving the car and much to my embarrassment, spit the “juice” out of the driver side window. Sometimes when we took an off-island adventure, and if the car window was only partially down, the juicy drool left drips that ran down the clean window glass like muddy stripes. If he chose to spit while the car was in motion, I would wait until the stripes curled at the bottom, looking to my innocent little girl mind like upside down chocolate candy canes.
When I was in my 40’s and Grampie was nearing the end of his life, he lay pale and struggling for breath and dignity from a hospital bed. Unable to speak much above a whisper, he crooked his finger to draw me closer to his face and asked me to go into his closet to reach into his worn flannel shirt pocket for something for him. I was not surprised to feel the “chunk of chaw” he was asking me to sneak to him.
As I crossed the room, I was overwhelmed by memories of his love affair with chewing. Those memories however had far less an impact than the look of sheet delight I saw in his twinkling eyes as I handed him the treasure he had so longed for during his lengthy stay at the hospital. His tired, worn, scraggly face seemed to glow and his age faded away at that moment.
He grabbed onto the chunk of chewing tobacco and clutched it to his chest under the crisp white hospital sheets for the remainder of our visit. He thanked me with a whisper in my ear as I hugged him for what we both knew would probably be the last time. I remembered the first time he shared his brownie with me.
At Grampie’s funeral, we all passed his casket slowly, some lingering to pay a tribute in their own special way. I tucked my favorite pinky ring (a simple love knot) into the breast pocket of the shirt where he always kept his beloved chewing tobacco. As I sat on the hard wooden bench facing his casket, I watched as my younger sister tucked a fresh package of chewing tobacco into the very same breast pocket, her special gift for his next journey.